Austrian moral theologian Bernard Haring, a retired professor at Rome’s Alphonsianum Academy, Lateran University, in mid-January again questioned Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae (HV). In an article in the Italian magazine Il Regno, Haring called for the debate on contraception to be re-opened in order to stop the “catastrophic polarization” in the Church.
Having claimed that “theological intransigence” is responsible for a “psychological schism” in the church, what is needed, he said, is widespread dialogue among theologians, laity and with other churches and groups. He attacked by name Msgr. Carlo Caffarra, head of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies of the Lateran University.
His charges followed several affirmations of HV by the Pope in 1988, as well as the conclusions of three Congresses in Rome in November 1988, held in honour of the document’s 20th anniversary.
According to Haring, the 1968 encyclical is just a debate about the legitimacy of artificial versus natural means of contraception in spacing births. What is really important, he states, is not whether a couple uses one or other means but how the spouses come to the decision to responsibly transmit life. In this process, contraception could well serve the larger meaning of marriage.
The Vatican has rejected this misinterpretation of HV since the document was first issued.
Some weekly Catholic newspapers are unhappy with the current Pope and the Church’s strict teaching on sexual morality. The Prairie Messenger, the Catholic weekly for Saskatchewan and Manitoba, for example, reported one of the earlier November conferences on HV in Rome under the false title “Contraception equals murder” (Nov. 29, 1988).
On January 30, 1989, the weekly reported the Haring incident as if it were a brand new development of great significance. “Birth control should be restudied,” was the front- page headline. The story referred to Haring only as “a well known theologian” without providing any other background.
An editorial in the same issue – “Birth Control and the Gospel” – supported Fr. Haring’s plea to re-open the contraception debate. It was “not enough for the teaching church to be right.” The editor argued. The Church also had a duty to present that teaching as good news instead of “bad” – something which the editorial implied had been the case until now.
Editor, Art Babich commended Fr. Haring, and assured his readers that its author had made this call for a re-study out of love for the Church. When he came to describe the theological defense of the Church’s authority as “rhetoric coming out of the Vatican in recent years,” Babich specifically pointed to what Pope John Paul II said last November.
At that time, John Paul rebuked Catholics who knowingly oppose Church teaching by using contraceptive methods, but claim they are following their own conscience. They are contributing to “a radical breakdown in obedience to the holy will of the Creator which is the basis of human dignity,” he had said.
The Pope also chided theologians who continue to dissent from the teaching against the contraceptive mentality, saying they “make void the cross of Christ.” (See The Interim, Dec. 1988).
Fr. Bernard Haring is indeed well known, but there is nothing new about his polemics. In the late fifties, he published The Law of Christ, a three-volume study of moral theology.
This gained him much prestige. However, with the controversy over the Pill in the early sixties, things began to change. From the close of Vatican II in 1965, onwards he favoured Church acceptance of contraception and taught accordingly.
Among Haring’s supporters was an American and a former student of his – Fr. Charles Curran. Together they organized the rebellion of West European and North American theologians in 1968 when Paul VI rejected contraception in Humanae Vitae.
Like Curran, Haring has widened his disagreement to other areas of moral theology. He refers to them as possible interpretations of papal teaching. Thus in a 1973 book, Medical Ethics, he defended sterilization, artificial insemination and contraception as possible means of “responsible parenthood.” On abortion and rape, he presented as “an opinion” the position tat “before the twenty-fifth to fortieth day, the embryo cannot be considered a human person.”
In the same pages, Fr. Haring took the view that in a pluralistic society, the Church should stop discussing ethico-medical issues in “religious terms.” Instead, it should discuss them in terms of common good, justice towards the weak and the protection of commonly agreed upon values. A consensus, he was confident, could be achieved without too much difficulty.
In 1975, Haring accused the Church of undermining its stand against abortion by failing to support the principle of contraception. (“Abortion stand damaged by a ban on contraception,” Western Catholic Reporter, Sept. 1, 1975)
He also argued that Church laws on marriage and divorce should be revised because they ‘often inflict cruel hardships, especially on the young,’ The Church’s marriage tribunals live in sin, he said. He accused militant Catholic conservatives as “fighting change mindlessly.”
Haring belittled the rhythm method – an early form of natural family planning (NFP) – in 1976, claiming it led to defective babies and more miscarriages. Invited to defend these accusations before an International Symposium on NFP, he declined. The Symposium refuted the Haring claims in a lengthy press release distributed in over 30 countries. Theological Studies, a quarterly journal, reprinted the Haring article for its American readers in March 1976, while the German editors of the original refused to print any refutation.
Ten years later, August 1986, Father Haring vigorously defended and praised his former student Charles Curran when the Vatican declared him “unsuitable to teach Catholic theology.”
Father Bernard Haring, in short, has been writing and speaking without hindrance against Church positions for 25 years. His latest demand for “dialogue” is nothing more than another attempt to get Church leaders to adopt his position and abandon theirs.
At the same time Fr. Haring was assailing Humanae Vitae, 163 Catholic theologians in German-speaking Europe used the opportunity to issue a statement bluntly criticizing the Pope for his “intense fixation” on the wrongfulness of contraception. The statement was signed by the usual list of dissenters, including Hans Kung of Switzerland and Edward Schillebeekx of the Netherlands.
At the end of January, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, admonished the dissenters. He spoke of “exaggerated charges, unbalanced summaries, unreal generalizations and imprecise and rash evaluation.” The consequence of such behaviour is to make it appear that the reconciliation between freedom and authority is impossible, he stated. He called upon them to stop doing this.
Though the Vatican’s press spokesman referred to the theologians’ censures as a ‘German’ affair, he responded to Father Haring. A story signed with three asterisks – the story originates in the Vatican and bears the approval of the Pope – addressed the pastoral consequences of such writings (Observatore Romano, English edition, February 27, 1989).
The article noted how the media are all too prone to echo such ‘doubts’ and sometimes “harsh observations.” It regretted the form of a personal attack “of a rancorous and disconcerting kind.”
The authors then defended the duty of the Church – no matter how much she might sympathize with the difficulties of married people – to speak the whole truth. It quoted Pope Paul VI that “it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Church.” (HV)
The authors reiterated that contraception “as intrinsically disordered act, does not admit of exceptions.” Again they stated that “conscience ought to be conformed to the law of God in the light of the teaching authority of the Church.” And that public challenges to constantly repeated teachings provoke doubts and create confusion.
In last analysis, the article states debates of this kind attack the teaching authority of the Church. It is “precisely the organized and systematic way in which some theologians have repeatedly opposed the Encyclical Humanae Vitae” and later documents that threaten the Church’s credibility among the faithful about which these same theologians claim to be concerned.
As for the presumed undue insistence of the Church on the moral problems of married life, this “alleged dangerous and mistaken emphasis ‘may’ annoy those who would prefer silence or else a ‘modern approach,’” the article states.
It is an insistence which is fully justified. On the spiritual level, sexuality is rooted in the human person as the ‘image of God.’ On the human level, sexuality is the basis for the ‘vocation to love,’ the article said.